Henrik Ibsen wrote “An Enemy of the People” 136 years ago, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the Goodman Theatre’s sleek and calculated new adaptation. Calculated, we’ll note, isn’t really a bad thing in this tale of a whistleblower who finds poison in the town water supply. It’s cliche to note that good and evil are never black and white; in “Enemy” the shades of gray rear up like a tsunami. “Enemy” hits hard, often and without mercy.
Directed and adapted by Robert Falls (from a translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling), the production is punctuated by impossible-to-miss topical references – fake facts, deplorables and science-deniers among them. They’re on the nose, but they’re ruthless in their relevance. Hitting with equal ferocity: The play’s refusal to let the audience off the hook. Every time you’re certain you’re cheering for the side of justice, truth and righteousness, Ibsen (ably assisted by Falls), adds on another layer of ambiguity.
‘An Enemy of the People’
When: Through April 15
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $25 – $80
Run time: 2 hours 20 minutes, with one intermission
Like the play’s Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Philip Earl Johnson), Ibsen was known for kicking up a ruckus. People rioted against his play “A Doll’s House,” which had the audacity to show a woman leaving her husband and children in the final scene. With “Ghosts,” Ibsen took on syphilis. Critics deemed the play a “loathsome sore.”
In “Enemy,” the plot swirls to a start when Dr. Stockmann finds out that the supposed miracle waters in town’s money-making spas are actually filled with toxic contaminants. He brings his findings to his brother Peter, the town mayor (Scott Jaeck), certain he’ll be lauded as a hero. “These are scientific facts. Only an idiot could deny them,” Dr. Stockmann exclaims.
Except they aren’t debating science, the mayor insists, they’re talking about a serious problem with complex political ramifications. And although Thomas makes a seemingly iron-clad case for closing down the spas and pouring millions into fixing them, the mayor comes up with some facts of his own. The mayor’s findings don’t seem entirely implausible. Then again, they could be pure propaganda. The fact that it’s difficult to say for certain is disorienting.
“Enemy” indicts on all side: The fickle nature of humankind, the hubris of would-be saviors, the totalitarian bullying of small-town powermongers, the herd-mentality of crowds – nobody escapes and there are no absolutes. It’s easy enough to say you can’t be bought when you’re sitting on a fortune.
As Falls and his pile-driving cast make vividly clear (or murky, as it were), it’s also easy to avoid getting bought when you don’t have anything to sell. The head of the local chamber of commerce (a delectably smarmy turn by Allen Gilmore) is firmly behind the doctor until it becomes apparent that the report will devastate the town’s local businesses. The newspaper editor (Aubrey Deeker Hernandez) champions Dr. Stockmann’s report at first, but suddenly changes his mind when ad sales come into play.
As for Dr. Stockmann, he seems like the one, true champion of the people until a packed, SRO town meeting (marvelously staged and featuring at least 50 actors). When the people turn on him, Dr. Stockmann doesn’t hold back. “No offense but you’re all a bunch of mindless cretins,” he says. Only brilliant minds such as his own, Dr. Stockmann insists, should be entrusted with the public welfare. As it turns out, his populism is cloaked elitism not unlike the Divine Right claimed by kings. As the doctor puts it: “The majority is never right. Never. Because the majority is overwhelmingly stupid.”
Falls elicits powerful performances from his ensemble. Johnson’s town hall address is a stunner that builds to what feels like an almost impossible crescendo. Usually when characters start slamming the furniture around, things have turned directly into hamland. Not here. Every ounce of fervor Johnson musters blisters with authenticity.
Jaeck nails the pompous, short-sighted, self-interested arrogance of small-town authoritarian. This is surely a man who would give his nephew with five DUIs a job driving a snow plow. As Katherine, Lanise Antoine Shelley brings home the personal cost crusading purists often pay. And as the owner of a local tannery, David Darlow slices through the bone that separates altruism from selfishness with a few, perfectly honed observations.
At one point in “Enemy of the People,” Dr. Stockmann is jousting with an umbrella – an image that calls to mind Don Quixote and his idealistic but crazy fixation with windmills. Which is rather the point. Although we’d all like to think we know for certain, it’s often hard to tell precisely where being right ends and being crazy (or egregiously self-interested) starts.
Catey Sullivan is a Chicago-based freelance writer.